Friday, February 21, 2014

Nestled Amid Toxic Waste, a Navajo Village Faces Losing its Land Forever -

Nestled Amid Toxic Waste, a Navajo Village Faces Losing its Land Forever -

CHURCH ROCK, N.M. — In this dusty corner of the Navajo reservation, where seven generations of families have been raised among the arroyos and mesas, Bertha Nez is facing the prospect of having to leave her land forever.
The uranium pollution is so bad that it is unsafe for people to live here long term, environmental officials say. Although the uranium mines that once pocked the hillsides were shut down decades ago, mounds of toxic waste are still piled atop the dirt, raising concerns about radioactive dust and runoff.
And as cleanup efforts continue, Ms. Nez and dozens of other residents of the Red Water Pond Road community, who have already had to leave their homes at least twice since 2007 because of the contamination, are now facing a more permanent relocation. Although their village represents only a small sliver of the larger Navajo nation, home to nearly 300,000 people, they are bearing the brunt of the environmental problems.
“It feels like we are being pushed around,” said Ms. Nez, 67, a retired health care worker, who recalled the weeks and months spent in motel rooms in nearby Gallup as crews hauled away radioactive soil from the community’s backyards and roadsides.

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Bertha Nez said families of Red Water Pond Road fear they could be permanently relocated because of the contamination. Mark Holm for The New York Times
“This is where we’re used to being, traditionally, culturally” she said. “Nobody told us it was unsafe. Nobody warned us we would be living all this time with this risk.”
These days, this sprawling reservation, about the size of West Virginia, is considered one of the largest uranium-contaminated areas in United States history, according to officials at the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency has been in the throes of an expansive effort to remove waste from around this tiny and remote Navajo village, and clean up more than 500 abandoned mine areas that dot the reservation.
Federal officials say they have been amazed at the extent of the uranium contamination on the reservation, a vestige of a burst of mining activity here during the Cold War. In every pocket of Navajo country, tribal members have reported finding mines that the agency did not know existed. In some cases, the mines were discovered only after people fell down old shafts.
“It is shocking — it’s all over the reservation,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the E.P.A.’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “I think everyone, even the Navajos themselves, have been shocked about the number of mines that were both active and abandoned.”
Between 2008 and 2012, federal agencies spent $100 million on the cleanup, according to the E.P.A.; an additional $17 million has been spent by energy companies determined to be responsible for some of the waste.
But the scope of the problem is worse than anyone had thought. The E.P.A. has said that it could take at least eight years to dispose of a huge pile of uranium mine waste that has sat near Red Water Pond Road since the 1980s — waste that must be removed before the area can finally be free of contamination.
“The community is frustrated, I know I’m frustrated — we’d like it to go quickly,” Mr. Blumenfeld said.
But before the latest round of cleanup can begin, an application to remove the waste pile must be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will then conduct environmental and safety reviews. That process will probably take two years, and there is the possibility that public hearings on the plan could extend the process several more years, said Drew Persinko, a deputy director for the commission.
That time frame seems unreasonably long for tribal members, who said that spending so long living away from the reservation has been difficult. So far, the E.P.A. has spent $1 million on temporary housing for residents of Red Water Pond Road; much of that cost will be reimbursed by General Electric, which acquired the old Northeast Church Rock Mine site in 1997, and also its subsidiary company, United Nuclear Corporation, which operated the mine.

As in the past, the relocations will be voluntary. Some residents wondered — as they have for years now — if the land will ever really be clean.
“Our umbilical cords are buried here, our children’s umbilical cords are buried here. It’s like a homing device,” said Tony Hood, 64, who once worked in the mines and is now a Navajo interpreter for the Indian Medical Center in Gallup. “This is our connection to Mother Earth. We were born here. We will come back here eventually.”
Residents still remember seeing livestock drinking from mine runoff, men using mine materials to build their homes and Navajo children playing in contaminated water that ran through the arroyo. Today, the site near Red Water Pond Road holds one million cubic yards of waste from the Northeast Church Rock Mine, making it the largest and most daunting area of contamination on the reservation.

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"This is our connection to Mother Earth," said Tony Hood, left. Mark Holm for The New York Times
The waste does not pose any immediate health risk, Mr. Blumenfeld said, but there are concerns about radioactive dust being carried by the wind, runoff from rain, and the area’s accessibility to children, who can slip in easily through a fence.
Under a plan being developed by General Electric and the E.P.A., the waste would be transported to a former uranium mill just off the reservation — already considered a Superfund site — and stored in a fortified repository. The estimated cost is nearly $45 million.
“General Electric and United Nuclear Corporation are committed to continue to work cooperatively with the U.S. government, Navajo Nation, state of New Mexico and local residents to carry out interim cleanups and reach agreement on the remedy for the mine,” said Megan Parker, a spokeswoman for General Electric.
The Navajo E.P.A., which is an arm of the tribe’s own government, for years has been calling for a widespread cleanup of abandoned mines. Stephen Etsitty, the executive director of the agency, said he was hopeful that progress was finally being made, but acknowledged that the scope and technical complexity of the operation at Red Water Pond Road was unprecedented.
“We’re pushing and doing as much as we can to keep the process going as fast as we can,” Mr. Etsitty said. “It’s just taken so long to get there.”
On a recent day, Ms. Nez and several other residents stood on a bluff near a cluster of small homes and traditional Navajo hogan dwellings as the wind whipped across a valley that once bustled with mining activity.
The group talked of their grandparents — medicine men who were alive when the mines first opened — and wondered what they would think about Red Water Pond Road today.
“They would say ‘How did this happen? They ruined our land,’ ” Ms. Nez said. “ ‘How come you haven’t prayed to have this all fixed up?’ ”

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Carter Camp, American Indian Leader, Dies at 72 -

On Dec. 29, 1890, United States cavalry, in the last battle of the American Indian wars, massacred as many as 350 Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Three generations later, Carter Camp, a 32-year-old Indian militant, retaliated.
On the night of Feb. 27, 1973, he led the first wave of armed, self-styled warriors in an operation to seize Wounded Knee, which had become a town on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The invaders, carrying a list of grievances against the federal government, seized the trading post, cut the telephone lines, ran the Bureau of Indian Affairs police out of town and took 11 hostages.
“We were pretty sure that we were going to have to give up our lives,” Mr. Camp said in an interview for the PBS program “American Experience” in 2009.
A caravan of 200 cars carrying Indians and their supporters followed, beginning a 71-day, gunshot-punctuated standoff that some applauded as a show of new assertiveness by long-downtrodden Indians and that others deplored as criminal.

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Carter Camp, center, in Wounded Knee, S.D., during a 71-day standoff in 1973. William Kunstler, the radical lawyer, is at left. Associated Press

By the time it was over, two Indians had been shot to death and a federal marshal was paralyzed. He later died. Mr. Camp was convicted of abducting, confining and beating four postal inspectors during the siege and served three years in prison.
He went on to spend decades fighting for Indian rights and died at 72 on Dec. 27 in White Eagle, Okla., the headquarters of the Ponca tribe, of which he was a member. The cause was kidney and liver cancer, his brother Craig said.
Carter Camp’s dream was to regain the vast lands his people had lost through unfair and broken treaties. But he started by aiming his sights lower, leading a campaign in 1970 to change the way federal money for Indian education was allocated on the Ponca reservation. He became state leader of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, which was organized in 1968 in Minneapolis as a defender of American Indian sovereignty. In 1972, he helped lead an AIM caravan from the West Coast to Washington, where “red power” advocates occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building.
During the Wounded Knee occupation the next year, alongside the AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell C. Means, Mr. Camp was the spokesman who presented the group’s demands to the government, among them that the government honor 371 broken treaties and that it end what the group called corrupt tribal governments. Mr. Camp rejected an offer of leniency if the protesters left immediately.
“We decided that the Indian people were more important to us than jail terms,” he was quoted as saying in “The Road to Wounded Knee” (1974), by Robert Burnette and John Koster.
When the Indians finally did end their occupation, Mr. Camp was one of the leaders who signed the agreement. Mr. Banks did not.
In August 1973, Mr. Camp was elected chairman of AIM but within weeks was ejected from the organization after being accused of shooting another AIM leader, Clyde Bellecourt, in the stomach. News accounts and histories say Mr. Camp was angry that Mr. Bellecourt had accused him of being a paid informer for the F.B.I. Charges were dropped after Mr. Bellecourt and a witness refused to testify.
The episode precipitated swirls of speculation. In his 1983 book, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” Peter Matthiessen said Mr. Camp had called Mr. Bellecourt a coward because he refused to carry a gun. Others suggested that the F.B.I. had planted the rumor that Mr. Camp was an informer to damage AIM’s credibility.
Bruce E. Johansen, the author of “Encyclopedia of the American Indian Movement” (2013), wrote that Mr. Bellecourt had tried to salvage Mr. Camp’s reputation but that Mr. Means had insisted he be expelled.

Carter Augustus Camp was born in Pawnee, Okla., on Aug. 18, 1941. He graduated from Haskell Institute, a high school for Indians in Lawrence, Kan. (It became Haskell Indian Nations University.) He then joined the Army and served in Western Europe. After his discharge, he worked in a factory in Los Angeles, serving as shop steward for the electrical workers’ union.
Mr. Camp returned to Oklahoma to be close to his roots, literally. “We believe the soil and every plant contains the dust of our ancestors,” he once said.
In recent years, Mr. Camp had fought against garbage companies’ using Indian lands for disposal; a proposed pipeline to bring tar sands oil from Canada; and a bar catering to motorcyclists near his reservation. He protested a re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark expedition, calling it a remembrance of the extermination of his people.
In addition to his brother, Mr. Camp is survived by another brother, Dwain; his wife, Linda; his sons Kenny, Jeremy, Victorio, Mazhonaposhe and Augustus; his sister, Casey Camp-Horinek; 24 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
Mr. Camp helped organize annual sun dances conducted by Leonard Crow Dog, the spiritual leader of the Wounded Knee occupiers. Participants, who may not eat or drink, dance around a cottonwood tree from sunrise to sunset.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Navajo Leader Drops His Support for Slaughter of Wild Horses on the Reservation -

PHOENIX — Under pressure by animal welfare groups and many of his own people, the president of the Navajo Nation, Ben Shelly, has reversed his stance on horse slaughtering, saying he will no longer support it and will order the temporary suspension of the roundups of feral horses on the reservation.

The agreement, brokered by Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, is scheduled to be announced on Tuesday. One of its key provisions is to pressure the federal government to do more to help the Navajos handle the tens of thousands of horses that roam freely on their land. Mr. Shelly has estimated that feral horses cost the Navajos $200,000 a year in damage to property and range.
“I am interested in long-term humane solutions to manage our horse populations,” Mr. Shelly said. “Our land is precious to the Navajo people as are all the horses on the Navajo Nation. Horses are sacred animals to us.”
Mr. Shelly’s recalibrated position is sure to strengthen the arguments against horse slaughter in the nation, just as a legal fight to block the opening of horse slaughterhouses in New Mexico and Missouri reaches its final stages.
It could also smooth relations between his administration and tribal elders in some of the Navajo Nation’s largest chapters, who have stood steadfastly against the roundups even as Mr. Shelly embraced them in August as the best available option, given the tribe’s limited resources, to keep its feral horse population under control.
At the time, his stance put the country’s largest federally recognized tribe in a collision course with Mr. Richardson and the actor Robert Redford, who had justified joining a lawsuit against horse slaughtering filed by animal-rights groups by saying they were “standing with Native American leaders.”
In a unanimous vote last month, the Navajo Nation chapter in Shiprock, N.M., bannedhorse roundups in its territory. The chapter’s president, Duane Yazzie, said members were concerned about the abandoned colts and the sale of the horses to meat plants in Mexico, where slaughter is legal.
On Saturday, several of the chapter’s members protested as Mr. Shelly took part in a parade at the Northern Navajo Nation Fair in Shiprock.
Mr. Shelly and Mr. Richardson met in Farmington, N.M., just outside Navajo lands, shortly after the parade to complete the agreement. It charges several animal welfare groups — including Animal Protection of New Mexico and the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife, founded by Mr. Richardson and Mr. Redford — with developing alternative policies. One option is rounding up the horses and putting them up for adoption; another is dispensing contraceptives.
“This is a huge event,” Mr. Richardson said. “One of the most important and largest tribes in the country is now on the record against horse slaughtering, and that should be a major factor both in Congress and in the courts.”
All along, Mr. Shelly had spoken about the “delicate balance,” as he put it, between the horses’ significance to the Navajos and the cost of repairing the damage caused by feral horses on the reservation, which covers roughly 27,500 square miles across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
The Navajos estimate there are 75,000 feral horses roaming the reservation, an estimate based on aerial observations, a method they concede is unreliable. One of the points of the agreement is to find a way to take an accurate count.
During a meeting in Washington last month, Mr. Shelly told several animal welfare groups that the federal government needed to “live up to its responsibilities,” according to his spokesman, Erny Zah, and help the Navajos manage the feral horses. It was not until the agreement with Mr. Richardson, however, that he made his new stance on horse slaughtering official.
The Humane Society of the United States and other groups sued the United States Department of Agriculture in July to keep horse slaughter plants from opening in New Mexico, Iowa and Missouri, arguing that the agency had failed to carry out all of the environmental checks, and asked the courts to block its inspectors from working there. The owners of the plant in Iowa have since scrapped their plans to slaughter horses and turned their focus to cattle.
In August, Judge M. Christina Armijo of United States District Court in Albuquerque halted the inspections until she makes her final ruling on the case, which is expected by the end of the month.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Redskins Name Change Remains Her Unfinished Business -

WASHINGTON — Suzan Shown Harjo still becomes tense when she recalls the onlyWashington Redskins home game she attended, nearly 40 years ago.

After she moved to Washington, she and her husband received free tickets. Fans sitting nearby, apparently amused that American Indians were in their midst, pawed their hair and poked them, “not in an unfriendly way, but in a scary way,” Ms. Harjo said.

“We didn’t know what was next,” she said.
Ms. Harjo and her husband left the game, but they never left Washington. The incident fueled her existing opposition to the team’s name and lent new urgency for her to get the team to change it. Since the 1960s, Ms. Harjo has been at the center of efforts to persuade schools, colleges and professional sports teams to drop American Indian names and mascots that some consider derogatory. The fight has escalated in recent days as groups have intensified lobbying efforts and organized protests, even prompting President Obama to weigh in on the issue.
The debate tends to settle on one central question: how many people must be offended by a team’s name for a change to be warranted? The Redskins, of the National Football League, cite polling in which most respondents said they were not offended by the name, while those lobbying the team to drop its name dispute the accuracy of that data and say that no matter, the word is widely regarded as derogatory.
More than two-thirds of the roughly 3,000 teams with American Indian mascots have dropped them, many voluntarily and without incident. Along the way, Ms. Harjo, the director of the Morning Star Institute, a group that promotes Native American causes, became something of a godmother to the cause of eliminating disparaging mascots.
“She has led this fight early,” said Ray Halbritter, a representative of the Oneida Indian Nation, which has paid for advertisements calling on the Redskins to abandon their name. “We stand on her shoulders.”
But Ms. Harjo, who prefers the term Native American, considers her work unfinished because professional teams, most notably the Redskins, have been vocal about keeping their name. In May, Daniel Snyder, the Redskins’ owner, echoed his predecessors when he vowed never to change the name.
The Redskins, playing in the nation’s capital and the country’s wealthiest league, have remained steadfast as many other teams have changed their nicknames, dating to the 1960s, when the owner at the time, George Preston Marshall, opposed desegregation. Edward Bennett Williams, who owned the team in the 1970s, met with American Indians to discuss the team’s name, but little followed.
“There are so many milestones in this issue,” Ms. Harjo, 68, said Monday at an event held by, a group urging the Redskins to change their name. “It is king of the mountain because it’s associated with the nation’s capital, so what happens here affects the rest of the country.”
Ms. Harjo, Mr. Halbritter, Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota and others who attended the event said that they would continue to call on Mr. Snyder and the N.F.L. to change the team’s name. Ms. McCollum, via social media and letters, has received the brunt of the backlash from some fans who think the Redskins should not change their name. (“I’m offended by the name Vikings as I have family from Denmark,” one person wrote on Ms. McCollum’s Facebook page, imploring her to “concentrate on a budget and don’t worry about the Washington Redskins.”)
Last week, days before the league’s 32 owners were to meet in Washington, the debate was inflamed when President Obama said that he would consider changing the name if he owned the team. Reed Hundt, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has also called on broadcasters to avoid using the team’s nickname.
In what amounts to a break in the stalemate, Adolpho Birch, the N.F.L.’s senior vice president for labor policy and government affairs, sent a letter last Friday to Peter Carmen, the chief operating officer of Oneida Indian Nation. Mr. Birch suggested that they meet before their previously scheduled meeting on Nov. 22.
“We respect that people have differing views,” said Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the N.F.L. “It is important that we listen to all perspectives.”
Ms. Harjo, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, spent her first 11 years on a farm in an Oklahoma reservation. Her family’s home had no indoor plumbing or electricity, and her idea of wealth was to have ice cubes in her drink, she said. Ms. Harjo’s great-grandfather was Chief Bull Bear, who battled the government over land in the 1800s. As a teenager, she lived with her family in Naples, Italy, where her father was stationed in the United States Army.
After returning to the United States, Ms. Harjo moved to New York to work in radio and theater production. There, she met Frank Ray Harjo and had two children. They worked to promote religious freedom and civil rights and co-produced “Seeing Red,” a biweekly radio program devoted to Native American news and analysis on WBAI-FM. Ms. Harjo also produced hundreds of plays and other programs and helped an improvisational theatrical group.
In 1974, she left for Washington to work as a legislative liaison for two law firms involved in American Indian rights. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed her a Congressional liaison for Indian Affairs, which allowed her to help draft legislation to protect Indian lands and tribal government tax status. She also worked for the National Congress of American Indians.
Ms. Harjo has spoken regularly on the issue of team names and held protests, including one at the Super Bowl in 1992, in Minneapolis, when the Redskins played the Buffalo Bills. At the time, Stephen R. Baird, a young lawyer who had clerked in federal court in Washington, was preparing a law review article on an obscure part of the Lanham Act that forbids trademarks that disparage people.
“There was really no precedent,” said Mr. Baird, who now works for Winthrop & Weinstine in Minneapolis. “So I asked, Why hasn’t anyone challenged them on that basis?”
Mr. Baird approached Ms. Harjo, and in September 1992 a legal battle began when Harjo et al. v. Pro Football Inc., the corporate name of the Redskins, was filed with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. After the three-judge panel agreed to remove the protections, the case was appealed, and a federal judge overturned the decision, saying that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their case, something that Ms. Harjo and others call a technicality. The Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.
“Those of us who were plaintiffs have passed on, and many of us have become grandfathers and grandmothers, and our hair has turned grayer, and still we haven’t been heard on our merits,” said Manley A. Begay Jr., a co-plaintiff who teaches at the University of Arizona. Referring to a once common term for blacks, he added, “After Sambo was removed years and years ago, we still have to deal with these mascots.”
To get around the court’s argument that too much time had passed, Ms. Harjo organized another case with younger American Indian plaintiffs. Oral arguments in that case were heard in March, and Ms. Harjo and others expect a decision perhaps by the end of the year. They are optimistic because, among other things, both sides agreed to recycle the records from the Harjo case as the foundation for this one.
Even if Ms. Harjo and her compatriots prevail in that case, Mr. Snyder will still be able to use the Redskins name. But the federal government would no longer be obliged to protect the team’s trademarks, and thus less likely to seize counterfeit goods, a potentially expensive exemption that could hit the team and league in the pocketbook.
“You’re not just dealing with the Washington franchise, but the whole of the N.F.L.,” Ms. Harjo said. “It’s one monolith after another laden with money and the power it represents.”

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Pine Ridge Reservation Votes to End Alcohol Ban -

For practically as long as the Oglala Sioux have lived on the Pine Ridge reservation, alcohol has been seen as one of the tribe’s greatest enemies.

Over the years, it has been illegally smuggled onto the reservation and blamed for crime, poverty, family estrangements, fatal car accidents, suicides and unemployment.
Now, alcohol is sowing resentment and division within the tribe as the people of Pine Ridge have voted to legalize its sale.
Tribal election officials on Wednesday evening confirmed that tribal members, in a public referendum, had voted to overturn the ban on possessing and selling alcohol on the reservation. The vote tally was 1,843 in favor of legalization and 1,678 against it, according to the election commission.
Tribal members will have three days to challenge the result, but the election chairman, Francis Pumpkin Seed, said the burden to get a vote struck down was high in that whoever complains would have to prove that election law was violated.
While supporters say legalization will allow them to regulate alcohol and earn money from sales, critics worry that it will only worsen the tribe’s problems.
“How far are we going to let it go?” asked Bryan Brewer, the tribal president, who is staunchly against legalizing alcohol. “How many more children are going to be murdered because of this?”
There have been protest marches by those opposed to ending prohibition, and the police have said people had received death threats.
Because of threats, the ballots were transferred to a secure location after the polls closed Tuesday so they could be counted.
Those supporting the initiative said opening shops that sold alcohol on the reservation would allow the tribe to keep a share of Pine Ridge’s money on the reservation that is now being spent in liquor stores in towns bordering it. Further, they argued that the tax proceeds from alcohol sales could be used to bolster the Oglala Sioux’s alcohol treatment programs. It remained unclear how much money allowing alcohol sales would produce for the reservation, which is one of the poorest places in the country and has unemployment rates estimated at more than 80 percent.
“Not legalizing it is just the status quo,” said Robert Ecoffey, 58, who worked in law enforcement on the tribe and served as a superintendent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “You have all of the issues and none of the resources to help deal with it.”
But that argument was unconvincing to Mr. Brewer.
“We’re going to use alcohol money to spend on alcohol issues,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense to me. I consider this blood money that the tribe will be getting. I hate to accept it.”
Solving the alcohol problem, he said, requires educating children, returning to the roots of tribal culture and creating jobs through economic development. Instead, he said, the tribal council, the federal government and the people of Pine Ridge have turned a blind eye to the problem.
The United States government has traditionally banned alcohol on reservations, but during the past 20 years, as more tribes have opened casinos — which are the leading economic drivers on many reservations — those prohibitions have been relaxed by tribes. Still, many reservations continue to limit alcohol sales and consumption to casinos.
Even the smell of alcohol on a person’s breath in Pine Ridge has been cause for arrest. But despite the ban, alcohol — particularly beer — is plentiful on Pine Ridge. Most comes from stores that sell alcohol in the tiny town of Whiteclay, just across the Nebraska border from the reservation. Four stores in Whiteclay sell millions of cans of beer and malt liquor a year, almost all of it to the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge. Lawsuits, boycotts, police safety checks and protests organized by the tribe have all failed to close the stores or to put a significant dent in their business.
Ron Duke, Pine Ridge’s chief of police, said that while he did not personally support opening the reservation up to alcohol sales, legalizing it would free his officers from responding to calls in which there is a complaint about an inebriated person or the presence of alcohol inside a home — which he said took up the vast majority of an officer’s time.
But Chief Duke said that he expected the easier availability of alcohol to lead to a sharp rise in violence, which will challenge a department whose 37 officers are responsible for patrolling an area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Like the majority of families on the reservation, Chief Duke, 63, said alcohol has had a devastating impact on his family. He said that he managed to avoid alcohol until he was 16, but was soon drinking heavily, like many among his family and friends.
During his 20s, he said, it was common for him to leave work at a beef packing plant in Nebraska, spend hours in a bar drinking until closing time at 2 a.m. and then return to work at 6 a.m.
Chief Duke said he finally gave up alcohol when he turned 31. But alcohol’s ill fortune caught up to some members of his family. Two of his daughters, he said, were killed in drunken-driving accidents in the 1990s.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Native American tribes’ lawsuit could decide who controls Senate in 2015 - The Hill - covering Congress, Politics, Political Campaigns and Capitol Hill |

Native American tribes’ lawsuit could decide who controls Senate in 2015 - The Hill 

By Jordy Yager 07/16/13 05:00 AM ET

A high-profile lawsuit on the voting rights of Native Americans could help determine control of the Senate in the next Congress.

A group of 16 Native Americans, nine of whom are military veterans, is waging a protracted legal battle against Montana’s Democratic secretary of State and county administrators, arguing for improved access to voter registration sites. 

The case will be significant for Democrats in 2014 as they vie to keep control of the upper chamber by holding retiring Sen. Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) seat. Republicans need to pick up six seats to win back control of the Senate. 

The litigation is moving forward at the same time as a recent Supreme Court decision that no longer requires a number of jurisdictions to get advance federal permission in order to make changes to their election laws.

The three Montana counties now being sued have historically lost Section 2 Voting Rights Act cases. However, for the state’s overwhelmingly poor and geographically isolated Native Americans — who vote predominantly for Democrats — the Montana fight is deeply personal. Tribal leaders say it is an issue of fundamental fairness. 

An estimated 50,000 Native Americans are eligible to vote in Montana. Many of them live on reservations throughout the sprawling 550-mile-wide state, which means driving more than 100 miles for some to reach polling sites established long before Native Americans got the right to vote.

It’s the distance equivalent of voters in Washington, D.C., having to drive to Gettysburg, Pa. and back to complete their late registration forms or cast early in-person absentee ballots.

If the state allowed more voting stations, known as satellite offices, on reservations, more Native Americans would have the ability to vote by a factor of 250 percent, a group supporting the lawsuit argues.

This group, which is providing strategic and financial support to the plaintiffs, includes Four Directions, a nationally known voting rights organization, and Tom Rodgers, the Native American lobbyist who blew the whistle on former lobbyist Jack Abramoff for charging Native American tribes exorbitant fees on lobbying.

Together, they have spent about $335,000 waging the legal battle, which began in the months leading up to the 2012 election. They have also offered to pay the cost of establishing the satellite offices, which could run up to $8,000 apiece for each location. 

The Department of Justice, Montana tribal leaders, the ACLU and the National Congress of American Indians have all backed the plaintiffs in the legal dispute.

The origin of the lawsuit began when Rodgers, a member of Montana’s Blackfeet tribe, received a phone call that U.S. Army Spc. Antonio Burnside, a fellow Blackfeet member whose tribal name was Many Hides, was killed last year in combat on Good Friday in Afghanistan.

In late April 2012, after raising the money to help celebrate the soldier’s life, Rodgers said a feeling of rage overcame him.

He noted that Native Americans have the highest percentage of military enlistees of any ethnic group.

“Some of the poorest of the poor can fight a war and die for you on a hellish moonscaped mountainside and then when they return home in a flag-draped coffin, you seek to diminish their native brothers’ and sisters’ ability to vote. Young dead soldiers do not speak. They leave us their deaths. It is us who must give them meaning by remembering them,” Rodgers said. “We got tired of the dark lies in rooms of white marble. Now the plaintiff warriors will take their faith in justice by acting with justice to other rooms of white marble: the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and Congress.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who won reelection last year, said that poverty and unemployment levels on reservations are higher than in the rest of the state, and that many Native Americans don’t have access to transportation or can’t take time off from work.  

“Native Americans are about 6 percent of the population, so it’s absolutely significant,” said Tester.
“Everybody who’s entitled to vote, we ought to give them every opportunity to vote,” Tester said. “We shouldn’t be limiting participation, we should be encouraging it.”

The suit might have an impact beyond Montana as well. If it goes as far as the Supreme Court, major Native American populations in Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nevada, California, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon and Alaska could see their voting rights greatly expanded or restricted.
Democrats are facing challenging elections in four of those states next year. 

Native Americans have played a crucial role in electing Democratic senators, including Tester and Sens. Tim Johnson (S.D.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Al Franken (Minn.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Mark Begich (Alaska.). All have won elections by fewer than 4,000 votes.

But for now, Montana — where Democrats are scrambling to find a candidate following ex-Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s surprise decision not to run — is the central battleground.
Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch (D) says she supports the Native Americans’ demands, but that the lawsuit is misdirected.

At a video-recorded meeting with the tribes earlier this year, tensions between the two sides were palpable as they failed to negotiate a compromise after a nearly hour-long discussion.

“I care that the people at this table have equal access, and what is in my power as secretary of State to do, I can do,” said McCulloch. “What I do not have the authority over is establishing county clerk offices. That authority belongs to the county governing body, the county commissioners.

“We will support and assist any county whose governing body has made a decision to open a second county clerk election office that can offer services such as registering voters and issuing absentee ballots. You have my unwavering commitment to that.”

A spokeswoman for McCulloch, citing the ongoing litigation, declined to comment for this article.
The plaintiffs and tribal leaders rejected McCulloch’s remarks. They said Montana’s secretary of State should join the tribes by officially standing with the plaintiffs and leading the county commissioners to create the satellite offices.

J. Gerry Hebert, who worked on voting rights issues for more than 20 years in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, doesn’t agree with McCulloch’s assessment either, saying that this type of case falls directly within her office’s jurisdiction.

“The secretary of State is the chief election officer and as such has the overall responsibility to ensure that all the state laws are complied with,” said Hebert, now the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. “And in this case, which is typically the case, a plaintiff will file a lawsuit and bring it against both local and state election officials, because it is both of their responsibilities.”

Although the issue has been in the local press for nearly a year, the Montana Democratic Party has not weighed in on the lawsuit, saying only that it supports greater access to polling sites and will continue aggressive “get out the vote” efforts.

“Increasing access to the ballot box on reservations and throughout Montana has always been a priority,” said Chris Saeger, a spokesman for the state’s party. “We would welcome any improvements that make it easier for Montanans to have their say in elections.”

“The Democratic Party of Montana has said we have done what we could,” Rodgers said. “But hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger, for the way things are, and courage, to make a difference.”
Carole Goldberg, a professor and vice chancellor at UCLA’s School of Law who has dealt extensively with Native American legal rights, said discrimination is widespread in many states with Native populations.  

“There are persistent patterns where states have criminal jurisdiction on reservations and the counties that exercise this jurisdiction locate their facilities and services in a place convenient for the non-Native population and not the Native populations,” said Goldberg, who has donated to multiple Democratic candidates.

Barring a settlement, oral arguments are expected to begin this fall.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

U.S. Budget Cuts Fall Heavily on American Indians -

PINE RIDGE, S.D. — The Red Cloud-Bissonette family needs a new trailer. Frank, who is disabled, and Norma, his wife, are members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who live on the sprawling grasslands of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Despite their constant efforts to patch the seams of one of their trailers that was hauled here in 1988, rot and mold continue to climb up the walls. The family has punched a hole in the ceiling for a chimney for their wood stove, a necessity given the harshness of the winters but a fire hazard in the dry climate.

A second trailer a few feet away, where some family members live, including a grandchild, has no plumbing or running water.
The Red Cloud-Bissonettes are one of about 1,500 families on a waiting list at a local housingimprovement program that was recently told that it is being shut down. “These are real, real low-income people,” said Andre Janis, the housing program’s director. “If we go away, a lot of people are going to be without these services completely.”
And it is just one of dozens of cuts the tribe is stomaching, many of them due to the mandatory federal budget reductions known as sequestration. When Congress approved legislation for the budget cuts, which went into effect on March 1, they specifically exempted many programs that benefit low-income Americans, including Medicaid, tax credits for working families and food stamps. But virtually none of the programs aiding American Indians — including money spent through the departments of interior, education, health and human services and agriculture — were included on that list.
As a result, the cuts are starting to deliver yet another blow to hundreds of the United States’ most deeply impoverished communities.
“More people sick; fewer people educated; fewer people getting general assistance; more domestic violence; more alcoholism,” said Richard L. Zephier, the executive director of the Oglala Sioux tribe. “That’s all correlated to the cuts from sequestration.”
On the Pine Ridge reservation, home to around 40,000 members of the tribe, the unemployment rate is estimated at as much as 85 percent. Shannon County, home to the town of Pine Ridge, has a per-capita income of less than $8,000. The local economy is not just reliant on transfers from the federal government; it in no small part consists of them.
Over all, the tribe’s budget is about $80 million a year, of which $70 million comes from federal sources, said Mason Big Crow, the tribe’s treasurer. The tribe still did not know how much money it would lose, waiting on word from Washington, he said, but the number would be in the millions.
The tribe is cutting the size of a program that delivers meals to the elderly, many of whom are housebound. The school budget, Head Start program and health service are shrinking, too. The tribe has no choice but to cut everywhere, Mr. Big Crow said.
Despite the reservation’s extraordinary problems with crime — alcohol and methamphetamine abuse are rampant, many of the tribe’s youth are involved in gangs — its police force is absorbing more than a million dollars in cuts.
“We’re cut to the bone,” Ron Duke, the police chief, said. “Right now, we’re being reactive to things. It’s really hard to be proactive when you don’t have enough staff. We’re just constantly answering calls.”
The force has already absorbed a cut of more than 6 percent, he said. This autumn, it will cut another 8 percent. Chief Duke has let 14 staff members go. He said that at any given time, the reservation had only nine patrol cars on duty to cover an area the size of Connecticut, exhausting his officers as they chased down calls.
With the cuts, the poverty trap that has plagued the reservation for generations looks certain to worsen, with yet more families mired in deprivation, reservation officials and residents said.
“Imagine how people feel who can’t help themselves,” said Robert Brave Heart Sr., the executive vice president of the Red Cloud Indian School on the reservation. “It’s a condition that a lot of people believe is the result of the federal government putting them in that position, a lot of people are set up for failure. People have no hope and no ability whatsoever to change their fate in life. You take resources that they have, that are taken away, it just adds to the misery.”

While the effect of sequestration on the overall economy has been diffuse, with the largest impact falling on the military and companies dependent on Pentagon spending, nowhere has the sting been felt more severely than on American Indian reservations.
There was a time when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was “a bunch of federal employees providing direct services to tribes,” said Kevin Washburn, the assistant secretary of the interior in charge of the bureau. “Now, a big part of the way we provide services to Indian tribes is that we contract with tribal governments, so they’re providing the services to citizens.”
The bureau, he said, had no choice but to pass the cuts directly to the tribes. “Tragic consequences are occurring,” Mr. Washburn said.
“In Indian country, there’s a disproportionate number of people employed by the government,” said Amber Ebarb of the National Congress of American Indians, a nonprofit based in Washington. “There is not as much of a private sector presence in Indian country, which tends to be high-poverty and high-unemployment to begin with.”
Some tribes, including those that operate successful casinos close to major population centers, have the resources to compensate for some of the cuts, diverting money from rainy day funds or holding back nonessential expenses.
But dozens of smaller or less wealthy tribes and nations are not so lucky. Aaron Payment, the chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, said the tribe was absorbing a $1.7 million cut, and trying to avoid layoffs and program closings. Still, if worse came to worst, it might have to move to emergency-only medical services, or closing entire programs.
“We put in about 50 percent of our financing, and the federal government puts in about 50 percent,” Mr. Payment said. “But we’re only meeting about 60 percent of our need to begin with.”
In the Navajo Nation, Deborah Jackson-Dennison, the superintendent of the Window Rock Unified School District, is in the process of reducing the school budget to about $17 million, from about $24 million, absorbing a cut from sequestration as well as from the local government. “It’s like getting two black eyes at once,” she said. She has let go of 14 employees, and moved the school district down to four buildings from seven.
In response to the cuts, many tribal leaders are lobbying the federal government to protect the tribes from sequestration — on both moral and legal grounds.
“We should be exempt from sequestration,” said Dr. Zephier, the Ogala Sioux director. “All tribes should be exempt.”
The tribes contend that the federal government does not just disburse money to them through federal programs. It meets its nation-to-nation treaty obligation to provide certain services to American Indians. Viewed in that light, a cut is not just a cut but a broken legal promise, and one in a long line of them.
“The tribes in this country, the federally recognized American Indians and Alaska Natives, have the world’s first prepaid health plan,” said Stacy Bohlen, the executive director of the National Indian Health Board, an advocacy organization based in Washington that has argued vocally against the cuts to Indian health programs. “They paid for it with their lives, and their land, and their culture, and the forced abrogation of their future.”
But on the reservations, a sense of resignation has set in.
“It’s one more reminder that our relationship with the federal government is a series of broken promises,” said the Rev. George Winzenburg, the Catholic priest who serves as president of the Red Cloud Indian School. “It’s a series of underfunded projects and initiatives that we were told would be funded to allow us to live at the quality of life that other Americans do.